BY SILVA LAUKKANEN; EDITED BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; ILLUSTRATION BY LIZ BRENT-MALDONADO
Mark Travis Rivera is an activist, author, choreographer, dancer, speaker, and writer. Raised in Paterson, New Jersey, he learned to face the struggles that stem from being Latinx, gay, gender non-conforming (femme), and disabled. He is the youngest person to establish an integrated dance company in the United States; marked dance project, a contemporary company for dancers with and without disabilities, was founded in March 2009. Mark has also apprenticed under Heidi Latsky Dance and AXIS Dance Company.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!
Image description: Mark is suspended over a blue swirl in mid-jump facing to the left side of the frame. His arms are straight and pointed above his head, and one leg is hooked around the other at the knee. A red line of energy zig zags around him along with the quote, “Start redefining possibility.”
How did you get into dance and what have been some highlights in your dance history?
I came to dance like most disabled people, later in life. I began dancing at the age of 15 at my performing arts high school. I majored in creative writing and minored in dance. My dance teacher, Erin Pride, took me under her wing and taught me everything I know about modern dance, as well as how to run a company and nonprofit. She taught me to be a leader and choreographer. I give her a lot of credit.
I was Erin’s first disabled student, so she had no blueprint. It’s amazing when somebody says, “I don’t know how to do this but I’m going to do it anyway so that you can get the training and experience.” I remember one guest ballet teacher, Sally Kane, did the most amazing thing for me in class. When I couldn’t get my leg on the barre because of my disability, she pulled a sitting chair and said, “This is your new barre, work on this and make it your goal.” By the end of the year, I was able to get my leg on the barre. My teachers didn’t give up on me; they pushed me and kept me going.
Two years after I started training, I thought how cool it would be to have disabled and non-disabled dancers dancing together. I had no idea about AXIS, Dancing Wheels, or Full Radius; it was just an idea. So, at age 17 I became the youngest person in the US to found and direct an integrated dance company. At the time, it started as a selfish desire to be onstage, but it quickly became bigger than me. Seeing how far we have come in the past 10 years is surreal.
One of my most pivotal moments was the student choreography show in 2010. I was the first dance minor to choreograph, and my piece ended up opening the show! Another highlight was when I worked with Heidi Latsky for a brief time as an apprentice. I learned GIMP, the piece that physically integrated her company. I saw possibility in the daringness of her work. Another pivotal moment was when I apprenticed with AXIS Dance Company for two and a half months. I feel like I’m a better artistic director of my own company as a result. I’ve been a choreographer for 10 years now, and I’ve learned how to work with different people and to feel confident in my own abilities.
How would you describe your current dance practice?
My dance practice consists of at least one technique class a month. I teach a dance class once a month at Gibney Dance. And I rehearse about three times a month depending on the project. I also take time to experience life. How can I create work if I don’t take time away to breathe a little? I just went back into the studio with the company and I reset a piece I created on Peridance called The Wait. I was picked for the Choreographic Development Project, and I was the only disabled choreographer. I was one of four people, and my piece got selected to be showcased at their PLUNGE Program. Then I decided that I liked the piece so much, I was going to reset it on my dance company and make it integrated, which is exactly what we did.
When you tell people you are a dancer, what are the most common reactions you receive?
Because my disability isn’t as apparent anymore, people don’t take my disability into account. So when I tell them that I have my own dance company and I do physically integrated work, they might say, “Oh that’s interesting, I didn’t expect that.”
Disability in dance is gaining momentum and people are more open-minded. Gibney Dance just posted a video on their Instagram of my dance class, and it got over a thousand views and many comments. Seeing what Heidi, Marc Brew, Mary Fletcher, and others are doing in integrated dance is really changing minds. It’s one performance at a time, one master class at a time, one intensive at a time, one studio at a time. Things are definitely shifting.
What are some ways people discuss dance with regards to disability that you feel carry problematic implications or assumptions?
I think the big problem we have when people talk about dance in relation to disability is inspiration porn. We get boiled down to just being inspirational. What that does is it takes away from the artistry of the work. There are people who dance just for recreation, and that serves a purpose in the disability movement. Like dance therapy, that’s a very medical approach and it has a place in the community, but it is not a professional dance experience. Dance professionals put in time honing our craft and developing our artistry. We want to be appreciated and we want critique that is more than just, “That was inspirational.”
My advice for press would be to tell readers what was good, what was bad, what could be better, how we can grow, and how we can improve. If you don’t give us critique, we will never grow. We need critique, there is a place for critique. The problem is that dance critics are not often coming from an intersectional perspective. They are not thinking about race, gender, sexuality, and disability in the art of the dance. They are often thinking about it from the white able-bodied lens, which really detracts from the critique.
My other advice would be to avoid focusing on the disability. Focus on the art itself. It’s easy to point out the dancer in the wheelchair, but how does that fit into the overall concept of the piece?
Do you believe there are adequate training opportunities for dancers with disabilities? If not, what areas would you specifically like to see improved?
Until we get into higher education, I don’t think we are ever going to have adequate training. We need more universities and colleges to be inclusive of disabled dancers in their dance programs. We don’t have that right now. It may not make as much profit because of the population being served, but until we get disability normalized in our education systems, we will never have adequate training for people with disabilities.
Would you like to see disability in dance assimilated into the mainstream?
Yes, I would, though there are different opinions on this. Some people say: “No, I want my own community, my own sector of the dance world that is just for disabled artists.” I was even told by someone that I shouldn’t have an integrated dance company, that I should have a disabled-only dance company. I responded: “No, I don’t want that, I think integration is still needed.” We need to get to a place where integration is not needed and everyone is equal. Then I’ll consider just having a disabled-only company. I think it’s important that we start redefining possibility. I want it to be the norm that when I go take a dance class, there may be someone in a wheelchair, someone who is blind, or someone with cerebral palsy taking class right next to me. I think there should be disabled-only spaces so that we respect and cultivate that community, but when it comes to training, access, performances, and opportunities, we need to be integrated.
What is your preferred term for the field?
I don’t like “mixed abilities” because I think that could apply to any group with different levels of technique or experience. I like “physically integrated.” That’s what I grew up knowing and that’s what I feel most comfortable with. We use the hashtag #disabilitydance on Instagram or social media to get the word out, but “disability dance” doesn’t include our non-disabled dancers in the conversation. I would never refer to my field as “disability dance” unless there is someone out there doing work exclusively on disabled dancers.
When I don’t feel like saying terminologies, I say I have a dance company for disabled and non-disabled dancers. My dance company just happens to include disabled dancers. If people ask for more detail, the next level of explanation requires an understanding of intersectional identities and perspectives. At that level, I’m no longer interested in just disabled dance. I’m interested in dancers who are queer, trans, or gender nonconforming. I’m interested in the nuances of multi-identity and how that influences art.
When we get disability down, what about race? What about gender? What about sexuality? What about socioeconomic class? What about nationalization, citizenship, and immigration status? How do these factors impact art beyond just the disabled component of identity? Three decades ago when the disability dance movement was first starting with Dancing Wheels and AXIS, it was a group of white people and their battle was how to get disability accepted in the dance world. Now, my battle is: How do we get everyone accepted in the dance world? How do we get disabled people of color, for example, in positions of leadership and power? I like to think about the nuances of one’s total identity, not just one aspect of identity.
In your perspective, is the field improving with time?
If you had told me 10 years ago that my company would be around this long, I would not have believed you. If you had told me there would be dance classes happening around the country in integrated dance, I would not have believed you. If you had told me that AXIS would hold their first Choreo-Lab for disabled choreographers from around the country to come together for an amazing experience, I would not have believed you. There have definitely been some improvements in the past 10 years. We’ve seen more community building at convenings across the country. The future is bright, and I think it is going to be dominated by the younger generation, which is more diverse than ever.
The one critique I have of the physically integrated dance community is how white it is, which makes sense when you think about access to training, grants, or the variety of resources that don’t have the same level of accessibility for people of color. I am one of a handful of people of color to be artistically directing an integrated dance company right now in the US. There are very few people of color who are in leadership positions in this field. Integrated dance is also very Western focused. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but I think we should expose people with disabilities to all different genres of dance. I’m always thinking about how I can push disability in dance even more.
Mark Travis Rivera, Photo by Shaan Michael Wade
Image description: Mark is pictured from the stomach up staring into the camera. One arm is on his hip and the other is extended to the side. The photo is taken outside with a building in the background.
To learn more about the Discussing Disability in Dance Book Project, visit here!